On one of the first pages of her book Fearless Freedom, a little after she narrates a childhood incident circling Raksha Bandhan, Kavita Krishnan jots down the lines of Band Khidkiyon Se Takra Kar (Crashing against Closed Windows), a Hindi poem written by the revolutionary poet Gorakh Pandey.
The second stanza begins:
New bride, ‘Lakshmi’ of our home
Queen of his dreams
Honour of the community
Half the world
Where she’s worshipped, the gods roam
She’s Sita, Savitri
She’s motherland, greater than heaven
But crashing against the walls
Her head bloody
The poet has slowly stripped away the many pompous chants about women’s greatness – Sita, Savitri, mother, motherland – Kavita writes, to say the obvious: ‘women are imprisoned in the four walls of their homes, which makes the home a prison, not a haven.’
These words can perhaps be the shortest gist of what Kavita’s – a Communist feminist activist’s – book is about.
A chapter title from 'Fearless Freedom'
She does not simply preach what should or should not be, but puts down facts, and very importantly, figures to back what should be obvious about the rights of women. From breaking the commonly-held myth that home is the safest place for women, to revealing how women belonging to different social strata are abused more or less in the same way, to narrating various incidents of cruel and unjust violence and killings, and above all, the threats to female autonomy, Kavita’s book is scary and at the same time, much needed.
“In India today, we are experiencing the most intense, politically organised attack on women’s autonomy ever. The attack is both physical and ideological. Every attack is being disguised as benevolent 'protection', packaged in phrases like Beti Bachao, Romeo Squad, Swacch Bharat, or Population Control,” Kavita says.
“This attack is not, however, entirely alien or without precedent. Our society was already hardwired to read attacks on women’s freedoms as 'protection' and 'safety'. But perhaps it has never been so politically urgent for ordinary Indians (without degrees in gender studies) to learn to decode the languages of patriarchy, and understand how to tell patriarchal campaigns from feminist ones," she adds.
Kavita’s is a face that appears on primetime television discussions; she's often chided on TV and abused on social media for her stances, sometimes labeled ‘anti-national’, sometimes the b* word, one that her mother laughs about. “Don’t they realise we think this is a compliment?” asks Lakshmi, Kavita’s mother from whom she learnt to take up causes, including that of defending a stray dog.
“In the book, I have tried to share something of what it meant to have parents like mine. I wanted to share these deeply personal stories as a tribute to my parents – and also to show that one does not have to be able to speak a 'woke' language or have any special training to be feminist parents and partners. All you need is empathy and humility and love,” Kavita says.
The early spark in her showed up in her student days. She was a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University when late BJP leader KR Makani came to address a public meeting on women’s rights. After Malkani spoke in detail about Muslim women being denied maintenance under Islamic personal law and oppressed by polygamy, Kavita raised her hand.
I told Makani that I agreed that Muslim personal laws were indeed unequal and called for change, and I asked him what he made of Hindu property and guardianship laws that, at the time, denied daughters the right to inherit ancestral property and decreed that a mother was not the natural guardian of her child. He replied, without missing a beat, ‘Hindu women do not need property, they get married and their husbands’ families take care of them’.
Kavita says, “My aim in sharing those anecdotes was not to 'explain' my evolution as an activist – I was, in fact, an 'accidental' activist, because I avoided - literally ran away from - activism for as long as I could. The activism happened, in very large part, because of the rise of far-right Hindutva politics around us in the 1990s, which posed such a clear and present threat to our freedom as women.”
She travelled – keeps travelling – to meet women across all spectrums. Nothing, you think, would have shocked her anymore. But findings in her book suggest some stories still managed to. “I think what really took me by surprise was the finding (NSSO data as well as the Indian Human Development Survey data) that women from Dalit, OBC and Adivasi communities do not have significantly greater autonomy than women from the privileged caste communities,” she says.
“It made more sense when I realised that even though Dalit and Adivasi women tend to work outside the home and earn a living, they are still expected to seek 'permission' from some authority figure inside the household in order to venture out of the household. Even those women who have relatively greater access to education or employment, are not exempt from the rule that they must seek permission for their mobility,” Kavita says.
What was less shocking to Kavita, but perhaps not so for a lay reader, was how more women appeared to be supportive of the long established patriarchal system – such as the findings of NFHS-4 (National Family Health Survey) showing a higher percentage of women who agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife for specific reasons.
“I think there is more than one reason for this fact – but the reasons are structural – i.e. related to the structure of our society rather than to individual 'mindsets'. One possible reason is that very often, the only power women can eventually enjoy, inside patriarchal households and communities, is the power over other women. Patriarchal societies like getting older women to police the conduct of younger ones, so that the oppression appears to have the consent and even participation of women,” Kavita says.
The other reason she finds is that the liberalism of capitalist societies encourages women to think of themselves as individuals in competition with other women and other individuals.
“This is why liberal feminist women tend to see, say, period leave, as being anti-feminist. 'It makes women seem ‘weaker than’ men, when in fact we are as strong as men in spite of our period pains,’ they say. The fact is that periods are natural, as are various physical and emotional changes around those 'periods'. We tend to see the typical worker and workforce as a gender-conforming male one. We think that people with bodies that bleed monthly must behave exactly like those that do not bleed monthly – or else be seen as a liability.
“But workers and workforces have to fight for weekends and for the right to have time to sleep. They have to fight to establish that human bodies need rest, leisure, and sleep. The bodies that bleed monthly are also, equally, human bodies. We should be able to demand that work and workplaces accommodate our bodies and bodily needs as we are – rather than force us to contort our bodies to fit the structure of “work” as capitalism has designed it.
“To see the world this way, we need to change how we imagine the workforce and work itself, as well as our place in the workforce. If we were to see ourselves as part of a diverse collective rather than as competing individuals, perhaps we would be better able to appreciate how the differences in our bodies are an asset not a liability.”
Despite everything, the ‘change’ that one desires to see, has already begun, Kavita believes -- with young women, young queer persons, refusing to accept the denial of their autonomy as “normal” and fighting for their collective freedoms.
“As a society, as communities (including privileged communities, but also oppressed and exploited communities and collectives), we have the chance today to support that change. When I say 'fight for collective freedoms', I mean that our 'freedom' cannot mean that we want to be free to be homophobic or sexist or casteist or Islamophobic. It means that we see how our freedoms, as individuals and as oppressed communities, are linked to the freedom of other individuals and communities. We need to hold each other up and struggle for 'Naari mukti, sabki mukti' (Freedom of women, freedom of all),” Kavita says.